The "no-reply" syndrome

The "no-reply" syndrome

Man is a social animal, said Aristotle. Even as children we begin to rely on an endless sequence of query and response. Around 6 am, I awake to a dialogue between two bulbuls on a tree nearby. Louis, the Labrador in a neighbour’s house, barks his reply to his friendly morning caller. No talk is possible unless there are at least two speakers who also listen; as we know from TV panel discussions. Grown-ups use silence punish disobedience or supposed misconduct. In ancient Athens, the democratic city-state used to ‘ostracise’ or banish troublesome citizens. They become outsiders beyond the pale. 

How downcast is the child whose need meets with no reply. Children respect elders who reply to enquiries and resent being treated as nuisances. “Mummy, what is for tiffin?” had better be answered credibly. But the “no-reply syndrome” soon begins to bedevil us. There was an old ditty: “Madras government, very good government; apply, apply, very soon reply.” Even a negative reply was deemed better than no reply at all.  

Early in life, we get acquainted with the “no-reply syndrome” when dealing with bureaucracy in a post office, hospital, railway station or a shop. It is exasperating to wait for the post and be snubbed. As a teenager I was ambitious to be an author. I wrote verse in English and won esteem in class when a submission was printed by the college magazine. I sent my next poem to the ‘Illustrated Weekly of India’ with “a stamped, self-addressed envelope” and got a printed, unsigned “regret” slip with my manuscript. But I persisted; and the editors did print a few of my juvenile offerings in the 1950’s and 60’s, though I got curt rejection slips from several journals.  
The ‘regret slip’ is outmoded since editors are overloaded with unwanted and unprintable amateur stuff. They adopt the policy of “no reply is our reply.” The persistent amateur may be consoled that his or her offering is not clicked into the waste basket of ‘cybernity’, but only put on hold. The amateur scribbler prefers to be printed with a pseudonym byline than to be ignored.

 A true dialogue involves speakers and listeners, but the exchange often becomes a series of monologues, unless both sides are on the same wavelength.  Imagine ‘Hamlet’ as a dialogue between the Danish prince and pedantic Polonius.  Or Karl Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’ as his dialogue with Stalin or Mao or a latter-day terrorist. Still, sages like Socrates and J. Krishnamurthy did not spurn this mode.    

In our time, cell phones, SMS and the Internet (when it grants you access) have propagated new courtesies of response.  I am disheartened on mornings when I find my inbox bereft of replies and instead there are dubious emails promising many thousands of dollars or sterling if only I could convey  my bank account details. I send them to spam and get no reply.

In ‘Alice in Wonderland’, Alice, glancing through her elder sister’s book, feels cheated because it has neither pictures nor conversation. I still treasure my paperback Alice and her conversations with Humpty Dumpty, the Red Queen, the White Queen, the White Knight, an old man sitting on a gate and inventing a way to dye his whiskers green, the nonsense verses and creatures like the Cheshire Cat. They somehow suggest new views of reality and dream. The Alice tales close with the line: “Life, what is it but a dream?”

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